From hero to zero
“Man, did I f*ck my life up.”
The simple words of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy seem to sum up his actions more aptly than any critic ever could.
In 2007, Donaghy had almost everything that a basketball fan could want. He shared the court with the NBA’s biggest stars every week, making important calls in packed-out stadiums across the US. But Donaghy had a secret, he was also betting on the games he was officiating, and potentially using his powers to tilt each fixture in his favor.
providing information to the mob
Donaghy’s exploits are now the subject of a recent documentary released on Netflix. Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul, named after the FBI investigation into the gambling scheme, tells the story from Donaghy’s point of view. It reveals how Donaghy first began giving tips to a close friend before eventually providing information to the mob.
Not only does the documentary shed a light on Donaghy’s scheme, but it also reveals more regarding his view on widespread match-fixing in the NBA itself. According to the disgraced referee and his accomplices, he wasn’t the only one breaking the rules. The league had a serious problem that ran all the way to the top.
As the Netflix documentary explains, Donaghy grew up in Pennsylvania with his referee father. He first began officiating on NBA games in 1994 and soon became one of the league’s signature referees, known for making the right calls in tough situations.
It wasn’t until much later that Donaghy began utilizing inside information on games for betting, providing tips to his good friend Jack Concannon. Donaghy explained the type of information he would use: “Maybe a referee had an issue with a coach or a player. Maybe a trainer came into a locker room before the game and said a couple of players were hurt.”
a printing press”
In the 2005-06 season, Donaghy teamed up with another friend Tommy Martino and professional bettor Jimmy ‘Baba’ Battista, who had links to the Gambino crime family. Battista eventually began staking millions of dollars on Donaghy’s picks – a system he described as “a printing press.” According to FBI investigators, a significant portion of that cash belonged to the mob.
Despite providing tips to his accomplices, Donaghy maintains that he never fixed the outcome of a game in his favor. Battista has a differing opinion, however, noting that he lost only 10 of the 47 wagers he placed using Donaghy’s information. That corresponds to a 79% win percentage. “He has a f*cking whistle in his pocket,” he said. “He has the lottery ticket.”
A wider problem
Predictably, it all ultimately came crashing down for Donaghy. An FBI investigation sparked by a mafia wiretap led to a 15-month prison sentence for both the former ref and Battista. Meanwhile, Martino received a one-year jail term after admitting to wire fraud. Needless to say, Donaghy never officiated in the NBA again.
Perhaps the most notable fallout from the betting scandal, however, were Donaghy’s claims against the league itself. To this day, he still maintains that the game-fixing ran all the way to the top, namely NBA Commissioner David Stern. Donaghy alleges that, rather than betting on games, Stern wanted to increase the profits of the league by influencing player performances and results.
it was better to treat the star players better than the others”
“I called what the NBA wanted me to call,” Donaghy explained. He gave the example of one game between Chicago and Philadelphia in 1996, in which another ref told him the league didn’t want traveling violations against star player Michael Jordan. “The way David Stern structured the league, we as officials knew that it was better to treat the star players better than the others,” Donaghy said.
Not only that, but he claims refs tilted playoff games to allow Series to run to seven games. “A sweep wasn’t good for the NBA’s bottom line,” the ex-ref explained. He noted specifically Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a fixture he deemed “the worst officiated game in the history of the NBA.” According to Donaghy, three refs earned bonuses after the LA Lakers beat Sacramento to progress to a seventh game.
NBA keeping stum
Understandably, Stern and the NBA have consistently denied all of Donaghy’s allegations. The league also refused any involvement in the Netflix documentary, stating: “Tim Donaghy is a convicted felon. There is no basis now to revisit any of this.”
According to Battista and others within the documentary, there could be good reason the NBA wants to keep all of this swept under the rug. According to official documentation, FBI probes completed during the Donaghy case led to multiple leads on other NBA officials, this included ten refs investigated for improper conduct, nine for casino gambling, and two for betting on sports.
Donaghy’s exploits were leaked to the press
Phil Scala, the former FBI man and lead investigator in the case, revealed that Donaghy originally intended to assist the bureau by wearing a wire. That plan fell apart after Donaghy’s exploits were leaked to the press shortly after Stern and the NBA learned of the situation. As can be expected, the league has since denied leaking any info.
It’s this leak that Scala claims prevented the FBI from investigating any other referees further. However, Battista (once again) has other ideas. Heavily implying that Scala was working for the NBA, he asked: “Why didn’t they go after everybody else?” According to the report completed in the investigation, 52 of the 60 refs questioned admitted to gambling in some form.
In fact, Battista even claims that Donaghy worked with the NBA to reduce his punishment. He said: “They gave him his pension. He got minimal time. I believe David Stern, Tim Donaghy, and Phil Scala were working together to make it simple: he was a rogue official.” It’s a storyline that essentially protected the league, ensuring no other refs faced investigations.
Whatever the true tale, it’s clear that this story might have a lot more to it than meets the eye.